A Call for Canadian Black History in BC Schools

Former CapU student one of many organizing to combat systemic racism in education

Hassan Merali // Contributor

After the worldwide racial justice protests in the summer were sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there’s been a spotlight on systemic racism and discrimination, especially in North America. In Vancouver, organizations like the BC Community Alliance (BCCA) and Anti-Racism Coalition (ARC) Vancouver have organized to root out the anti-Black racism in public education.

Former Capilano University (CapU) student Markiel Simpson is a member of the Steering Committee of the BCCA, which was formed in the aftermath of a racist bomb threat at Lord Byng Secondary in 2018. The Black history he was taught through the public school system in BC was near non-existent and focused mainly on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the Underground Railroad, with no mention of Black history in Canada. 

Simpson started at CapU in 2012 and left in 2018. “There weren’t really any places for BIPOC folks. It was an isolating experience.” He encountered a great deal of casual racism, recalling an incident where a white student was defending colonization. “He was talking about Indigenous people like they were less than—like they were savages,” said Simpson. “I was put in a position where I had to defend Indigenous people.”

Incidents like these and the bomb threat at Lord Byng are why the BCCA started a petition to make educational environments in BC public schools more inclusive. “Not having an anti-racism strategy…not having data, not giving teachers training…a lack of those procedures that we need can facilitate a breeding ground for racism,” said Simpson. The petition urges the Ministry of Education to create a database to keep track of incidents of racism in BC schools. “Right now, there’s no data available to identify what the scale of the problem is,” said Simpson. “Incidents of racism aren’t tracked … right now, incidents of racism are kind of swept under the rug.” 

The petition also calls on the ministry to develop Black history for the BC curriculum in meaningful consultation with Black-led organizations, which Simpson believes is important.

“If it’s not created in conjunction with Black-led organizations, then an institution that has ignored Canadian Black history since its inception would be tasked with creating it. The expertise is held in that community itself, and the professors, the teachers, the organizations are coming together to share their expertise.” 

The petition is gaining support at the local level. “We asked [the Burnaby School Board] if they would support our petition, and they made our question a motion on the floor, and they made it an emergency motion… to the BC School Trustees Association,” said Simpson, referring to the organization that represents all school boards in the province. “And all 60 voted for the motion at their meeting.”

Currently, students in BC know more about American Black history than the Black history of Canada. “Since we don’t learn about Canadian racism, and the history of racism in the country, or just our history in general, it makes it seem like it doesn’t exist, and what ends up happening is we get erased. Canadian Black history exists, but it’s been erased from our history books. Our monuments have been taken down,” said Simpson, who has heard the common refrain that racism in Canada is not as bad as it is in the States. He points to the mainstream media and the education system as culprits, saying that we learn about racism in the United States, but not racism here.

“The Massey Tunnel used to be called the Deas Tunnel,” said Simpson, referring to John Sullivan Deas, the dominant salmon canner in BC in the late 1800s. “He was an entrepreneur. He was the first salmon canner in BC, I believe, a Black man. And they just changed it, without any consultation, from Deas to Massey.” 

Other organizations like ARC Vancouver are also targeting anti-Black racism in BC education. They started a petition to the Ministry of Education to create a ‘Black Shirt Day,’ similar to Pink Shirt Day and Orange Shirt Day, which raise awareness about 2SLGBTQIA+ discrimination and the history of residential schools, respectively. ARC Vancouver has proposed Jan. 15, the birthday of the late civil rights icon Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as a date to wear black shirts. “[We hope this will] be an important step in raising greater awareness of the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights faced by Black and racialized Canadians,” ARC Vancouver said in a press release.

When asked if he had anything to say to other Black students, Simpson provided some hope. “We’re trying to improve the state of BC’s education system and make it a safe place to learn,” he said. “And if you need help, reach out for it.”

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